An entomologist explains the potential risks—even for kitties who don't go outdoors—and offers strategies for handling or preventing an infestation.

By Erica Sloan
July 15, 2020
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Linda Raymond / Getty Images

Although your feline friend may not venture outside, she isn't immune to the perils of fleas and ticks. These pesky bugs are highly resourceful, often making their way into a house by hitching a ride on a person, a dog, or even a rodent beneath your floor or in a ceiling void, says Marc Potzler, board-certified entomologist and technical-services manager for national pest company Rentokil. What's worse, fleas can even enter your home of their own accord, without a host: They can jump up to seven inches high, allowing them to hop up steps and pass through an open door. And once a flea or tick has successfully trespassed, it can lay eggs; when the larvae develop, newly hatched bugs will seek the first available host, whether a dog or a cat.

As a result, it's smart to treat any cat—including an indoor one—with a flea and tick preventive, says Annie Harvilicz, chief medical officer at Animal Wellness Centers, in Los Angeles. She typically uses Bravecto (applied topically every three months) or Vectra (applied topically every month) on the pets in her practice, but the best option for your cat will depend on where you live, and the types of fleas and ticks that are most prevalent in your region.

Here, Potzler shares tips for determining if you may have a flea or tick problem in your home, as well as how to prevent one in the first place.

Identify an Infestation

Your first step is to carefully inspect your cat. "Fleas—and particularly the cat flea, which is the most common one in the country—are flattened laterally, making them tall but thin," says Potzler. And they'll only be a few millimeters long at a maximum, so they're easy to miss on a first pass. If you notice that your cat is scratching excessively, that's a telltale sign, as is "flea dirt" showing up in areas where your pet hangs out, adds Potzler: "This is described as salt and pepper, the salt being flea eggs, and the pepper being flea droppings." Ticks, on the other hand, are easier to spot. They're typically bigger than fleas, with adults growing to about the width of a pencil eraser before they start feeding. And after completing a meal, they'll swell to a centimeter long.

If you find either pest on your cat, Potzler suggests gently removing it with a pair of fine-tipped tweezers and preserving it in rubbing alcohol to show your veterinarian; this way, you can find out what it is, where it likely came from, and whether it indicates a potential larger infestation in your home.

Safeguard Your Yard

Beyond preventatively treating your cat, you can take a few steps to reduce the likelihood of ticks or fleas congregating on your property. "These bugs often hang out on overgrown vegetation, waiting for their next host to walk by," says Potzler, so it's in your best interest to keep your yard well-groomed. Since un-mowed grass or debris on your lawn can also create harborage spots for fleas, as can any standing water, be sure to mow regularly and avoid over-watering—particularly in the summer months when spikes in temperature and humidity tend to attract bugs in larger numbers.

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